Two men. Two British motor racing legends who both died on this day, yet fourteen years apart.
John Surtees and Barry Sheene.
The former was born in 1934 and went on to become a world champion on both two and four wheels, the only racer to have ever done so. The latter was a double 500cc world champion and was the first British 125cc champion.
Their lives were completely separate, both different characters in their own right but held in high regard by racing fans for their achievements.
In 1951, a year after Barry Sheene was born, John Surtees was hitting the headlines after challenging Geoff Duke at Thruxton. It would be four years last that he would get his first factory ride on a Norton where he again challenged Duke and beat him on two occasions at Silverstone and Brands. Surtees was quickly becoming a name and attracting the attention of other factory teams. He joined MV Augusta.
Barry Sheene was still six years old and far away from the world of motorcycle racing.
Surtees earned the nickname figlio del vento, or son of the wind.
The following year he won the 500cc World Championship and gave MV Augusta their first title win in the senior class.
It was in 1960 that the motor racing world was taken by surprise at the switch from two wheels to four wheels as John Surtees entered the world of Formula One. He was 26 years of age and made his F1 debut for Lotus at Monaco. Barry Sheene was still only 10 years old and was eight years away from competitive racing.
After spending a few years driving for Reg Parnell, Surtees joined Ferrari in 1963 and would take the Formula One world title the following year. He walked away from Ferrari in 1966 after being left out of the team to drive at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The reason given was that the Ferrari team boss felt that Surtees was not fully fit after his horrific crash testing a Lola T70 sports car at the Mosport Circuit the previous year. He finished second that year to Jack Brabham, driving a Cooper-Maserati.
In 1966, with Barry Sheene just 16 years of age, Surtees signed for Honda and after some technical issues he went on to win the Italian Grand Prix.
In 1968 Barry Sheene was racing 125’s and 250’s, winning his first races at Brands Hatch before becoming the first British 125cc champion in 1970, the same year in which John Surtees set up his own racing team.
John Surtees retired from driving in 1972, the same year in which Barry Sheene was signed by Yamaha to ride in the 250cc World Championship. Although it was a works Yamaha, there was no factory team in the championship and Sheene, being the outspoken person that he was, would voice his opinion on this case.
Sheene suffered a broken collarbone and would not see action on the track again until the summer, at which time he did receive factory backing for his Yamaha. At John Surtees’ team, Mike Hailwood won the European Formula 2 Championship.
Sheene signed for Suzuki and won the Formula 750 championship for them in 1973.
As the 1970s rolled on and John Surtees set up a motorcycle shop and Honda dealership, bringing an end to his racing career, Barry Sheene was just getting started. However, a massive crash at Daytona in 1975 nearly finished Sheene’s racing adventure.
It was in 1976, twenty years after Surtees, in which Barry Sheene brought home the 500cc World Championship and then retained it the following season, partnered by Steve Parrish.
In what a lot of motorcycle racing fans call one of the greatest Grand Prix’s of all time, Sheene battled with Kenny Roberts at the 1979 British Grand Prix. The following season he would leave Suzuki and race on a privateer Yamaha. There would be no more titles for the fun loving Londoner. He would retire from the sport in 1984 taking up residence in Australia.
In contrast, John Surtees would still be involved in motorsport, becoming chairman for the A1 Grand Prix series.
In 1996 John Surtees was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame. Barry Sheene died of cancer in 2002, a year after the FIM named him a Grand Prix Legend. He was awareded an MBE. In 2003 John Surtees would receive the same honour of being named a Grand Prix Legend by the FIM. He attained the honours of MBE, OBE and CBE.
To this day John Surtees is the only person to have ever won world championships on two and four wheels and Barry Sheene is the only British double world champion in the premier motorcycle racing class. Surtees also won 6 Isle Of Man TT races.
You could say that both men were worlds apart. The gentleman, soft persona of John Surtees against the cheeky, hard drinking and hard smoking Barry Sheene.
The two men share some things in common. They both have parts of Brands Hatch named after them, they were both 500c World Champions and sadly they both died on 10th March.
They were legends in their sports and loved by the fans for the way they raced and the emotion they put into their passion of racing.
I grew up learning about John Surtees and was completely captured by his story and what he had achieved long before I had been born. I grew up watching Barry Sheene hurtle his way fearlessly around the track, regardless of the many injuries he suffered.
In my eyes they were just two heroes who I admired. I never met Barry Sheene. I wish I had, he seemed like a fun person to be around. I did meet John Surtees on two occasions, he was such a lovely man with so much time for racing fans.
Both dearly missed by friends and family, the news of John Surtees death today and the anniversary of Barry Sheene’s passing tinged this day with sadness, but somewhere on a race circuit in the sky I’m sure Barry Sheene was sitting on the starting grid waiting for John Surtees to arrive so they could have that race they were never destined to have.
Two men with racing in their blood. One the son of the wind and the other a maverick, but both total legends in the eyes of any racing fan.
As a racing fan I’ll savour the past and thank both men for the enjoyment they gave me.
See you at the chequered flag.